The movie “Seven” takes us into the moral and philosophical territory, and conducts a debate about human nature and social responsibility – it is the movie’s innumerable signs that lead us there.
Police Detective Somerset is counting down the last seven days before the retirement. He is called to investigate a suspicious death; he detects the work of the serial killer who turns his victims into a representation of the Seven Deadly Sins. Knowing it will be a long-running investigation Somerset is reluctant to be involved.
However, he is equally sure that Mills, a young cop new to the city’s homicide unit, is not yet ready for this kind of job.
Roland Barthes’ five codes are clearly in operation in every part of David Fincher’s Seven. Like any film – but perhaps more than most – this taut pitch-black thriller is a swirling sea of signs on the crime scenes. The central conceit of the movie invites a semiotic analysis, as it seems to hinge on the ability to decipher a cryptic message.
Even the title itself plays with systems of meaning. A great deal of the film’s publicity refers to it as Se7en.
The moment it begins the movie sets us to work, dealing our bits of information that the viewer can sort into appropriate patterns of understanding. Our senses are on maximum alert for the “road signs” that signal the kind of experience the film is going to give us.
The world of the film is created with great economy. Before anything appears on the screen, we hear distant wailing sirens summoning up associations of danger and rescue. It was criminality and law enforcement. The almost constant rain adds an element of claustrophobia to the background hostility and menace of the soundtrack.
This external environment contrasts with the first visual images we see, as we follow Somerset (Morgan Freeman) moving slowly around the hushed and dimly lit interior of his apartment, getting prepared to face the city streets. His calm and methodical manner conveys an inner stillness, which will be his hallmark.
In these early scenes, Somerset is being “assembled” for us from a series of carefully chosen outward signs. They inform the audience who he is and what to expect from him. He tidies his kitchen, and one by one collects the personal effects neatly lined up on his dressing table. He carefully places a fountain pen in the pocket of his crisp white shirt. He also plucks fluff from his suit.
When the viewer next sees the protagonist, he looks like the stereotypical American detective complete with trench coat and trilby. A costume that adds to his air of authority but singles him out as a figure slightly displaced in time.
The chess set in the foreground of the opening shot suggests intellectual combat and a struggle between black and white – good and evil. The switchblade he later throws with such shocking force and deadly accuracy into a dartboard represents mental sharpness, directness, and efficiency.
Other objects associated with Somerset represent extensions of his personality. When we see him in his cramped office pecking away at an old-fashioned manual typewriter we are seeing someone comfortably self-contained in his working habits, but “out of step” with modern ways. He says as much:
“I don’t understand this place anymore.”
Most striking of all is the metronome that he keeps beside his bed. Its regular motion reflects the order he craves and drowns out the chaos that encroaches from the street outside. These noises – emergency vehicles and angry voices, are the world he lives in and wishes to escape.
All these signs point to Somerset’s psychology – to the qualities of intelligence and calculation, maturity, and independence, moderation, and self-control, which equip him for the task ahead. They are visible-external-signifiers of the invisible-internal-signifies – his mind. These signs give the illusion of human depth and complexity that makes him “real” to us and allows us to attribute to his beliefs and desires that can then go unstated. Creating a coherent character profile encourages the audience to feel they recognize and understand him. Attaching to him they attach to the film.
Working the enigmas
Being a detective thriller, the whole movie is explicitly structured around the need to solve a mystery. We are already alert to the overriding question the film asks. Who is behind these murders? Why “seven”? Where are the clues that will lead them to him? These question marks take us further and further into the heart of the film. One of the audacious things about this movie is the explicit way it foregrounds the “breadcrumb” procedure of clues. It is guesswork, which is the staple of the detective story.
Not only we have the implicit countdown through the seven days of the week, but we see Somerset being seduced into investigating the case. Although he is determined to avoid involvement. His boss cunningly piques his interest – putting evidence on his desk (thin slithers of linoleum taken from the gluttony victim’s stomach), and quietly mentioning over his shoulder as he leaves:
“They were forced to eat.”
Somerset is also being fed a line – and he bites. Somerset’s curiosity gets the better of him. He’s hooked, and so are we.
This trail of breadcrumbs orientates the audience towards closure and the ultimate satisfaction of “order restored.” Nevertheless, the big punchline delivered at the end of Seven, and the sudden change of direction implied by the words “I’ll be around” leave us with something both shocking and thought-provoking.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
We experience something strangely familiar when we follow Somerset back to the crime scene. Hearing a strange throbbing coming from the refrigerator, he turns to find not only where the plastic came from but the note from the murder that confirms his worst fears. Somerset here exhibits the powers of observation and intuition we associate with a master sleuth. He is on the villain’s wavelength, with special insight into his deranged mind, and a methodical approach that cuts out all extraneous or superfluous influences. When he flatly refuses the coffee which his new partner Mills offers him on the way to the victim’s apartment, it shows him to be intent only on the job at hand.
The Clash of Opposites
Barthes’ symbolic code offers the richest vein for analysis. The “cut” from the sound of Somerset’s metronome to the edgy credit sequence juxtaposes order and chaos, method and madness in a way that perfectly captures the conceptual polarity around which the entire film turns.
Somerset and Mills embody a pattern of oppositions too numerous to mention. They belong to the time-honored tradition of the buddy movie – chalk and cheese, brains and brawn, the ever-steady and the unstable – a relationship beginning in hostility, but ending in mutual respect. We read each according to the other.
Their sharpest opposition appears in the cross-cutting between the library. Somerset has gone to research the Seven Deadly Sins and damnation, while Mills sits at home fruitlessly studying the files. The engraved illustrations depicting Hell in the copies of Dante’s “Purgatorio” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” not only resemble the twisted corpses in the crime photographs. They reflect Mill’s tortured incomprehension. Lacking the “culture” Somerset and John Doe share, Mills simply cannot read the signs.
When we see his wife looking on through a veiled curtain, her role as angelic witness is clear. She is also the bridge that will bring the two men together.
In order to understand even the first few minutes of the movie (including the edgy relationship between Somerset and Mills, their interview with the Captain, Mills’ wife’s reference to “tracker poles’”, and so on) the audience needs to understand a host of commonly held assumptions relating to personal ambition, seniority of status, professional advancement, career structures, hierarchies of responsibility, the authority of experience, and more.
In other words, the audience needs to recognize the values that dominate the modern world. An entire social structure is implied.
And of course, to understand the central motif of the film the audience must be able to recognize a host of moral and religious ideas based on a distinction between “crimes” that break the law of man – and act that offend Almighty God. In a culture where such a distinction did not exist, the film would not only luck the frisson of Hell and eternal damnation – we would hardly understand it at all. Have a nice and deep understanding of Se7en analyze.
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- “Psychological Analysis Of The Movie Seven.” Anti Essays, 9 Oct. 2011, .